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Manga as High Art: Self-Defense for the Otaku
Writen by Lola Granola
Posted on July 10, 2008 at 04:01:51 am
Manga as High Art: Self-Defense for the Otaku
Lola Granola

Have you ever felt embarrassed because of the things you like and what you do? Have you ever felt ashamed of your hobbies and interests because they are not widely accepted in society? Been told that anime and manga are trivial, childish, and a waste of time and money? Jonathan Jake Tarbox, one of the editors for Viz Comics, seeks to dispel discriminations that have plagued all anime fans. His resume is expansive. He was once the senior editor of Raijin Comics, and also worked for the National Football League of Japan. Tarbox has worked on various manga, including Angel Sanctuary.

While the culture of anime and manga is on the rise, the respect for it is absent. The otaku's world is labeled as "low" and immature. As a manga editor Mr. Tarbox has faced criticisms and questions that have challenged the authenticity of his career. In response, Tarbox says, "What we do is valued and valid", referring to all anime fans. To retaliate against the suppression of manga and anime as growing acceptable cultural phenomena, he exposes how manga and anime function as art and what they mean in modern contexts. Tarbox arms otakus with knowledge and ways in which to defend themselves in hostile, anti-otaku environments.

The big issue is the battle between what is considered “high art” and “low art”. Tarbox points to the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci as an example of what Western cultures see as high art. High art is universally transcending. It is the pinnacle of creation, achievement, and technique. High art is refined, imbued with noble sentiment. Historically, intelligence, social standing, class, and taste, have all influenced the reception of high art. One had to be educated to understand it, and even if one did not understand the art they had to respect it.

In contrast, low art takes little materials to complete and lacks technical detail. It doesn’t need education or intellect to understand it. When explaining what low art was, Tarbox used Charlie Brown from Charles Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip to illustrate as an example. What critics of “low art” fail to realize, is the genius of how few lines are used to express a character in such an effective way. The evolution of art within the past century has challenged classifications. Now in modern times, the distinction between low art and high art is discredited.

Art becomes open for interpretation based on the observer. Take for example, Andy Warhol who reproduced images of Campbell soup cans. What may have been viewed as low art hundreds of years ago is now worth millions of dollars. Andy Warhol believed pop culture was high art. Roy Lichtenstein, an American pop artist, deliberately chose comics as his theme and subjects. Even academics have supported the elimination of low art and high art as separate classes. No one can say manga and anime are “low art”.

Comics are the very origin of modern culture. Sequential art has existed for centuries. For the Mayan culture, sequential art was the highest form of expression. The Bayeux Tapestry of the Norman conquest of England details the events of the invasion in colorful representation. Stain glass windows in renaissance churches and cathedrals throughout Europe illustrated the life of Christ for a largely illiterate population. These are some prominent examples as to why sequential art was important and still valued today.


The argument that manga and anime lack detail and technical merit can only be taken at face value. As simplistic as manga characters are drawn, artists are capable of drawing subjects and themes that require more detail. The next time you read a manga, or watch an anime, pay attention to the environmental details of the setting. After attending this panel and watching Batman: Gotham Knight, the cityscape of the animation really popped out of the screen. Manga artists have the ability to render characters realistically or subjectively. They also have the ability to make characters more objective, or abstract. Anime and manga characters are more objective because the simplicity of the character design allows the comic to express something universal. “As if you’re able to identify yourself with the character”, says Tarbox. Simple faces allows us to interpret expressions and feelings.

There is a fundamental element in the human brain that recognizes heads and faces. For example, if we were to look at an electrical outlet on a wall, theoretically we are not suppose to see a face. However we can identify two eyes and a mouth. Animals would not be able to see a human face, they would only be able to see blocks of colors. Thus, there is a part of the of the neurological brain that recognizes human faces. The reason why heads of anime and manga characters are large and simplistic, is so that audience can better identify with them. The same follows why anime eyes are so large. The eyes are the window to the soul. When we talk to people, we look at their eyes and read emotions from them. Why do poker players wear hats? Because we can see their eyes. As simple as characteristics are rendered, an explosion of emotion and expression can be pulled from just a few lines.

Tarbox also talks about the compression of time in anime. We all are familiar with how long fights took in series such as Dragon Ball Z. For manga and anime, the emphasis is not on the ending, but rather the journey. The decompression of time is an important element because for Asian art, what happened along the way is crucial, or the “unpacking” of an event. This can be a big difference from western ideals that hunger for some sort of ending or conclusion.

As an individual who has worked in the NFL, Tarbox provided amazing insights as to how an otaku can defend himself against criticisms.

Criticism #1: Otakus and their friends are nerds who have large gatherings at big events.

Response #1: Sports fans and their friends also have large gatherings at big events.

Criticism #2: Otakus are dorks who cosplay and dress up as their favorite characters.

Response #2: Sports fans also “cosplay” and dress up as their favorite characters.

Criticism #3: Otakus waste their money on events and merchandising.

Response #3: A super bowl ticket can cost up to $4,000 whereas a 4 day pass at AX costs $60.

Criticism #4: What is up with this culture of scantily clad woman?

Response #4:

How is the mainstream acceptable and the otaku’s world not? As Tarbox stated, “What we do is valued and valid”. Mr. Tarbox’s presentation on anime and manga as high art gives fans confidence in their interests and hobbies. “To express a character in so few lines… isn’t that genius itself?”

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